It was my misfortune that the first and only time I encountered Island Records’ founder Chris Blackwell resulted in a prolonged and rather unpleasant exchange of views about the merits of a concert by Traffic at the New York Academy of Music on September 18, 1974, that I reviewed for Melody Maker in less than complimentary terms.
“The problem was Chris Wood,” I wrote. “On the opening night Wood collapsed half way through Traffic's first set and didn’t return for the second. At the show I saw, Wood was obviously under the influence of something that prevented him not only from playing with his usual taste, but from pitching the right notes or playing his lines at the right moment.” I closed the review by suggesting that Traffic would have fared better without him.
A week or two after this review appeared I happened to be having lunch with my friend Peter Rudge at the Russian Tea Room on 57th Street when Blackwell passed by our table. Rudge knew him well and introduced us but no sooner had he mentioned my name than Blackwell launched into the fierce diatribe about the review. I stood my ground. Blackwell even admitted he hadn’t actually been at the show and, in any case, I figured I had a bit of credit with Island through writing positively, and at length, about Free, Mott The Hoople and Cat Stevens, among others, not that he took this into consideration. The argument raged and was not resolved, though as I recall he threatened to remove Island’s advertising from MM, which turned out to be bluster. After all, we sold 200,000 a week in those days.
This was doubly unfortunate for me because I loved Traffic and loved Island Records, the coolest label in town. Like most critics with any gumption I rated Steve Winwood as among the most gifted of UK musicians, and records by his group Traffic, along with those by Free, Mott and Stevens, though not, sadly, Nick Drake, were on heavy rotation in my Bayswater flat. Furthermore, the soundtrack to The Harder They Come turned me into a lifelong reggae fan, and Bob Marley’s Catch A Fire soon joined my other well-played Island albums.
All of this came back to me as I read The Islander: My Life In Music And Beyond, Blackwell’s engaging autobiography, written with Paul Morley, whose uncharacteristically restrained editorial contribution belies his tendency to attract controversy and befuddle the reader.
Born, as he puts it, into the “Lucky Sperm Club”, Blackwell was a bright, personable, handsome Jack The Lad destined to go places whatever fate threw his way. He learned the record trade in Jamaica, the island of his birth where his family, loosely descended from the Crosse & Blackwell preserve dynasty, occupied a fairly lofty position in society. Expelled from Harrow at 16 for rebellious tendencies, the teenage Blackwell ditched education and scrounged around, mixing with family friends like Ian Fleming, Errol Flynn and Noel Coward, until he found a niche role delivering US R&B singles to premises equipped with juke boxes. Somehow, he was equally at home among the posh white folk and impoverished black population, a rare social skill, and various asides leave little doubt he was on the side of the oppressed in the colonial debate. He also did location work for the first James Bond movie, Dr No, and might have gone into the film business were it not for a soothsayer who advised music.
These early chapters offer a fascinating insight into the Jamaican record industry and culture, and explain how Blackwell came to love reggae music and absorb it from the ground up. His return to the UK just as The Beatles were getting off the ground was timely, not the only slice of luck that went his way. Famously, the first hit he produced, in 1964, was the ska-tinged ‘My Boy Lollipop’ by Millie Small, and by this time he’d put in the hours and knew what he was doing. Wisely, he kept a low profile, and made many useful contacts in London’s music world when it was a bit a free-for-all, working alongside managers like Brian Epstein, Andrew Oldham, Kit Lambert and Peter Grant who, like him, were forging a path into unknown territory.
Millie was a one-hit-wonder, a lesson Blackwell took to heart insofar as it taught him the wisdom of nurturing musicians for long term careers. The first of these was Steve Winwood, whose genius he recognised in The Spencer Davis Group, whom he managed. He promptly signed Winwood to his own Island Records and supported Traffic’s whimsical excursions, but he hated Blind Faith, especially Ginger Baker with whom he experienced “fifteen minutes of pure fury” during a row in a recording studio. A drug related customs incident didn’t go well either.*
We learn a lot about Winwood, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Cat Stevens, his fondness for in-house music nut Guy Stevens whose record collection was “considered to be the best in the country”, and love-hate relationship with maverick Jamaican record producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. We also learn that Blackwell passed on Elton John – “too insipid” – Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, the latter two because he thought, correctly, that they would dominate Island to the detriment of others. He missed out on Dire Straits because he was looking the other way during an audition, and saw no future in Madonna.
The two biggest acts Blackwell did sign, of course, were Bob Marley and U2. The former, along with the other two original Wailers, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone, turned up in his office one day looking for a handout to buy a flight home. To the dismay of his Island staff, who thought they’d rip him off, he gave them £4,000 to make an album which turned out to be Catch A Fire, shrewdly upgraded at his behest to meet the expectations of white rock fans.
Blackwell writes about Marley with admiration and great affection, not so Tosh and Livingstone, who resented what they saw as favouritism. Detained elsewhere, he was lucky not to have in the firing line during the attempt on Marley’s life in 1976, and following his death in 1981 the label saw to it that Marley became even more celebrated than in life, largely through the Legend compilation, the brainchild of Dave Robinson who’d joined Island from Stiff and didn’t share Blackwell’s reverence for Marley’s spiritual side.
Discussion on U2 is left for much later in the book, after chapters that take in Free (but not Bad Company, of whom there’s scant mention), Roxy Music, Grace Jones, Robert Palmer, Tom Waits and many others, several of whom recorded at Blackwell’s Compass Point studio in the Bahamas. Somewhat ironically, the best-selling album to have been recorded there is AC/DC’s Back In Black, hardly Island fare, but the studio was the home of Sly and Robbie who pissed off James Brown by failing The Godfather of Soul’s subservience test.
Blackwell’s interest in U2 was prompted by their press officer Rob Partridge, who in 1973 had taken over from me as Melody Maker’s news editor before joining Island four years later. Rob persuaded a slightly reluctant Blackwell to see them at the Half Moon in Herne Hill. “There seemed to be more people in my entourage than in the paying audience but U2 played as though there were a thousand in front of them,” he writes. “They were bursting out of themselves.” Though unconvinced by their music, Blackwell signed them anyway, adopting a hands-off role that served both parties well, a bit like Ahmet Ertegun’s attitude towards Led Zeppelin, Atlantic’s best-selling act.
Island grew and grew, at one time employing 120 staff in America alone, and in the end it simply grew too big for him, so in 1989 Blackwell sold out to PolyGram for almost $300 million, 10% of which went to U2 who’d negotiated a stock deal in lieu of royalties that some years earlier Blackwell was unable to pay. This was five times more than the royalties they would have earned, not the only strategic error Blackwell cheerfully admits in the book’s 400 pages.
Following Island Blackwell launched Palm Pictures but found greater success as a hotelier and real estate developer, his current occupation. This began with his acquisition of Golden Eye, the former home of Ian Fleming where he wrote his James Bond books, now a boutique hotel, and in this respect The Islander ends where it began, on the island where Blackwell clearly feels most at home. Back in Jamaica during the pandemic, musing in an epilogue on those he has lost, among them, touchingly, former spouse Mary Vinson, we can but envy the extraordinary life he has led.
The book is not without its flaws. Peter Grant wasn’t managing The Jeff Beck Group in 1964 – they weren’t formed until 1967 – or Stone The Crows, as stated on page 107. There are some confusing chronological leaps, and here and there the proof readers have taken their eye off the ball, not least by crediting six photographs to Adrian Boor, which is ironic as my good friend Adrian Boot is among the least boorish people I know.
There’s a 16-page photo section, including a rare pic of Blackwell with The Wailers – rare insofar as he avoided being photographed with Marley lest he seem like the patronising white man. In a nice touch, the cover and interior heads are set in Cooper Black, the soft, chunky font much favoured by Island’s graphics department for their LP sleeves and, of course, the ‘i’ in Island on those pink labels. The index is skimpy.
*Many years ago, I was sent the manuscript for Hellraiser, Ginger Baker’s autobiography with a view to publishing it with Omnibus Press. I passed, partly because it was shamelessly self-serving and partly because it was riddled with mistakes, one of which was a constant reference to the head of Island Records as Chris Blackmore. I now realise this was probably a deliberate slight.